Southern Guild presents Transcending Instinct, an installation of large-scale seating objects and paintings by Nandipha Mntambo, from 16 February to 31 March 2022. The artist’s first solo exhibition with the gallery, Transcending Instinct also marks her first venture into functional sculpture.
A multidisciplinary artist who rose to prominence for her cowhide sculptures, Mntambo sees her oeuvre to date as a continuous and interconnected body of work. Collaborating with Southern Guild presented her with the opportunity to explore how key ideas, materials and forms from her archive could be applied to the creation of functional objects. “Lately, my interest lies in re-examining the concept of shape and forms and reflecting on my earlier sculpture and photography, using my current practice as a lens to look back,” says Mntambo.
Each of the four seating objects in Transcending Instinct takes as its departure point a recurring motif or modality from Mntambo’s work. The hunched, rounded or “hump” shape that has appeared and reappeared in various forms over the years (from the hut-like uMcedo sculpture of 2009 to more recent ink drawings and oil paintings) is echoed in a rocking stool adorned with row upon row of hanging leather tassels. The stool’s shape and sense of dynamism and concealment also bring to mind Zangbeto (another recent interest of Mntambo’s), a voodoo spirit regarded by the Ogu or Egun people of Benin as guardians of the night, given physical form through elaborate raffia costumes.
The hump shape is also cited, albeit inverted, in a large bowl-like chair whose rugged leather exterior seem to engulf the sitter. Hidden among the ruffles of leather is another Mntambo motif: folded “ears”, a reference to the Inkunzi Emnyama coat she made using cow ears (2009). The scale and texture of this piece is both cocooning and unsettling – a concave space in which to curl up, aware of one’s corporeality and closeness with the animals whose skins surround you.
The tension between human and animal is perhaps most marked in a zebra-skin chair that began as a sculpture Mntambo made in her studio in Joburg. Its original form, in which the animal appeared to be bucking, has been turned upside down and “tamed” with traditional upholstery springing and various layers of foam cushioning to render its curves comfortable. But this is no slick, sanitized animal-print ‘statement piece’ – the animal’s presence is keenly felt, intentionally manipulated but very much there.
Mntambo’s series of abstract “hair drawings” combining ink and cow hair sewn into paper inspire an oblong timber chaise (carved by Adam Birch), whose sheepskin seat erupts in a profusion of long leather strands. Like the other works, the chaise both holds and obstructs the body.
The origin point for Mntambo’s artmaking has always been the body. Her cowhide sculptures, moulded from her own form, have been described as “vacated second skins” – rigidly preserved in resin but alive with movement. Making sculptural seats brings her full circle, opening up a different terrain by inviting the audience to literally occupy the space of her own body, thus recasting themselves in a way that is at once familiar and wholly unexpected.